Riney Laments The Decline Of His Agency, Industry

As Publicis & Hal Riney faces the loss of top client Sprint Nextel and an uncertain future, founder and creative legend Hal Riney talked to Adweek’s Joan Voight about his frustrations since selling the shop to Publicis Groupe in 1998 and retiring in 2002. Now 74, he admits he avoids TV ads whenever he can and worries about the future of the industry that once thrilled him.

Adweek: Do you still have feelings for your former agency and the ad business overall?

Hal Riney: I’m sad to see what has happened at the agency. Frankly, I don’t pay that much attention anymore, but even from a distance I hate to see the changes there. A lot of decisions were made that I did not agree with, but it wasn’t my company anymore. Advertising can be a thrilling business and it’s sad to see money become the purpose, rather than the result. It’s sad to see a place lose its creative drive. They have been put in the position of paying back the people who bought them and that focus has taken over. I think the work I did could not be done in the agency today. But they are not alone. It is appalling what has happened to the industry in general. Ad people have no faith in the long-term effects of brand image, so the human element is lacking in the work. The business is run by computers and MBAs; if they can’t nail a [dollar] figure to an idea or a campaign, they don’t do it. Advertising has been relegated to middle management and all ads have become essentially retail, with few exceptions. There is no continuity in the work. It’s not a pretty picture.

What are the worst examples you see out there?

Riney: Cars and drug ads. The never-ending prescription drug ads drive me crazy, like [they do] everybody else. But autos are worse. I’ve watched the decline of the auto business in this country, and it’s amazing to see the car companies do the same ads over and over for the last 20 years with the same overblown theme at the end.

Is there still a place for entrepreneurs—like your younger self—in the ad business?

Riney: With all the talk about the Internet, advertising has become ho-hum and the industry has to figure out where it belongs. But major shops only care about trying to sustain themselves. So there is room for the entrepreneur in advertising, just like in politics. Everyone uses the same formula, and once in a while someone breaks through and shows that the formula is lousy. San Francisco broke the formula for a while, so did New York. But New York doesn’t do that anymore.

What’s your advice for any agency at the crossroads?

Riney: This is a business built on ability and imagination. You need a magnificent group of creative people and remarkable clients who want to have fun and not just do the same thing. The bottom line is to realize creative people get into the business to have fun with ideas and to move people. If they are restricted by bean counters and strategic briefs, they will get out and go where they are wanted. If your agency just worries about the bottom line and keeping the clients happy, you will lose your creative talent and then lose your business.

With talent at such a premium, Google and others identify creative applicants by asking about pets or favorite TV shows. What are yours?

Riney: My pet is a hunting dog named Bess, and I don’t watch TV shows because I don’t want to see the ads. I prefer movies, especially anything with Robert Duvall.